Legends of Songwriting: Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime

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Scott Joplin, the King of Ragtime

As radical as rock & roll was when it first emerged in America, ragtime seemed childish to many at first, a fad that would fade quickly. Others found it threatening, and quirte possibly dangerous.

To others it was thrilling. intoxicating. And a sign of the times.

In time it has been recognized as America’s first classical music.

Radical Ragtime quickly spread throughout America from 1895 to 1919, soon becoming the wildest and most beloved musical craze in the country. Just as rock & roll was sparked in the black community, evolving from blues as electric instruments came in, and became so popular that established, white songwriters essentially appropriated the genre, so did ragtime go through similar stges. Born by black musicians in American cities, it was initially castigated and belittled until it was too big to fight, at which time it became appropriated by mainstream songwriters. 

Hit songwriter Irving Berlin, famous for capitalizing on any musical
craze he could exploit with popular songs, wrote several hits about ragtime – even with the word in their title – though their had no actual ragtime in them. 

Real ragtime, however, was more than a concept or a passing craze. It was a serious, sophisticated and complex style of instrumental 
music founded on oddly exultant “ragged,” syncopated rhythms. It was the first black genre of music to have a major impact on mainstream popular music. 

The undisputed king of ragtime was Scott Joplin. Not only the primal force in propelling ragtime into the culture, and establishing it as a serious musical genre, he wrote the songs that, to this day, defined and distinguished this music. He was The Beatles of his time, delivering to an astonished and delighted public  a bravely new style of music ideal of the fast changing spirit of modern times. It was music which would lift the heart with its joyous spirit. Yet it was also modern, and not simplistic. It went by fast, but you got a whole lot of song in those few minutes. 

Just as rock & roll was considered only a fad at first, and not a serious and lasting style of music, so was ragtime dismissed by many who refused to recognize its significance. Yet rock & roll remains more than fifty years since its birth. 

Ragtime also remains, and is recognized as the first American classical music. Characterized by syncopated melodic phrases inbetween metrics of rapid-fire bass lines, it evolved from jigs and marches into a rich and singular genre. 

“The Maple Leaf Rag,” performed by its composer, Scott Joplin.

Its dense pianistics, replete with suites of complex counterpoint and elaborate arpeggios, resound to this day like soul-injected Liszt. As with jazz, rock and roll, and other uniquely American genres, the distinguishing greatness of ragtime derives directly from its intersection with the black and white experience—in this instance, from European classical music combined with the rhythms and harmonies of Joplin’s African heritage.

As with other genres of music which seemed foreign and overwhelming to many Americans, many tried to minimize its impact with derision, suggesting it was simplistic music, undeserving of too much attention.

In retrospect, this seems sadly ludicrous. Yet it’s a pattern which has been woven through American culture for decades, to bolster one segment of the populace by attacking the emerging art of another. There was those who suggested the music of Stevie Wonder was also simplistic and not worth remembering. 

Yet some truths, as Jefferson wrote, are self-evident. Listen to any of Stevie’s records, especially those on which he played all the instruments, such as “Higher Ground” or “Superstition.” Is that simplistic?

Ragtime was much more than many realized. It was fast festive music, uplifting and exultant. Its rhythms were compelling and new, and inspired dance. But it was much more than party music. Lest anyone subscribe to the notion that it is simplistic music in any way, all you need to do is listen to “Maple Leaf Rag” or any of Joplin’s compostion? Does that sound simplistic? How about trying to play it? As any pianist knows who has played Joplin, it is no easier to master than the work of Bach or Debussy.

In ragtime was joy but also sorrow. It has the spirit of hope, but the purity of real life. Many of his songs merged joy with strains of deep sorrow, reflecting the reality of life for black Americans. Joy and sorrow were forever intertwined, as in Joplin’s beautifully elegiac “Solace.” 

Scott Joplin’s “Solace,” performed by Phillip Dyson.

It swept through America and beyond just as the 18th century ended and the new century began. Like initial reactions to rock & roll in America when it first emerged, the reception to ragtime was also quite polarized. To many it was absolutely thrilling, while to others it seemed threatening, the sign of a world gone wrong. Asked what the secret of playing ragtime well, Scott Joplin said, 
“Play slowly until you catch the swing.” 

While ragtime was not his invention, he expanded its range far beyond what it had been before, not unlike the Beatles’ expansion of rock & roll. When his landmark “Maple Leaf Rag” was published in 1897, people discovered ragtime’s emotional depth, sophistication and vigorous rhythmic propulsion. Emerging as it did before the age of recordings, it was a sheet-music and piano-roll phenomenon, enjoyed by listeners at parlor pianos throughout America.

He was born in or around 1868. His father, a former slave, worked on farms, and the family lived in the Texas-Arkansas border town of Texarkana. His mother worked as a maid in the homes of white families, where he first laid his eyes and his hands on a piano. A Jewish-German music teacher by the name of Julius Weiss recognized the innate depth of his talent, and gave him free lessons, exposing him to the classical music and operas which forever shaped his musical consciousness.

By August of 1891 he was playing banjo and cornet in a Texarkana minstrel show. Eventually, he landed in Syracuse, N.Y., where he got his first compositions published—non-ragtime songs “Please Say You Will” and “A Picture of Her Face.” He then moved to Sedalia, Mo., where he worked as a pianist in two all-black social clubs. He was writing all sorts of music—pop songs, marches, waltzes and more.

In 1899 he composed what still remains his most famous composition, the “Maple Leaf Rag.” Published by Sedalia’s own John Stark, it was a vast success, generating over a million copies of sheet music sold. Joplin earned more fame than fortune—he got one cent per copy, which totaled about $360 a year. But the spirit of ragtime swept the country.

In the spring of 1900, galvanized by his success, he wrote one masterpiece after the next, including “The Entertainer,” (which later became famous when used as the theme for the film The Sting, adapted and performed by ragtime lover Marvin Hamlisch.) 

But like Gershwin, he aspired to be a serious composer, and focused his energy on creating a ragtime opera. Also like Gershwin, Joplin was regarded as a songwriter, not a composer, and he had little success mustering financial support for his more serious aspirations.

Scott Joplin.

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